How “To Pimp a Butterfly” Ignited a Kendrick Lamar Revolution

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It was approximately 11:00pm, March 15, 2015. I remember the time vividly: I was laying in bed preparing to enjoy an “early” night’s rest prior to the start of the workweek. As I laid my head down, determined not to open my phone up for anything other than an emergency, my busy mind kept me tossing and turning and the nagging feeling of FOMO kept disrupting my several attempts to sleep. After about 15 minutes of fighting the urge, I gave in, ultimately opening my Twitter app to a firestorm of reactions from those that were awake for the epic release of Kendrick Lamar’s long-awaited album.

That firestorm, as we now know, was the surprising release of To Pimp a Butterfly, which would turn into the most important album of 2015. When the now-platinum project suddenly hit iTunes that Sunday night, something in the culture shifted. It had been years since a single piece of music hit me instantly (it even inspired this instant review piece), and years since I observed how music can truly impact the masses in the way that it did.

Though this is hardly his first time at the rodeo, as his first two works Section 80 and Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City were compelling in their own right, there is something to be said about such a dark, personal story being told in his third effort. After we named To Pimp a Butterfly STASHED’s album of the year, it was then that I realized that not only was T.P.A.B. one of the most prolific albums of all time, Kendrick Lamar is unequivocally and positively, the most important artist of our generation.

Not only did Lamar’s third project garner national praise, the album became the symbol of the times. In a world where it became difficult to get the masses to acknowledge the hardships of the Black demographic, Lamar used his platform to earnestly, honestly, and powerfully express the frustrations that many face every day. While some would argue that D’Angelo’s Black Messiah (which T.P.A.B. has been starkly compared to over the last 12 months), was the voice of a generation, it was Lamar’s relatable approach that makes him integral to the people that experience the grave sadness that civil injustice has caused them.

Similar to Beyoncé’s release of “Formation,” and J. Cole’s staunch and persistent stance against police brutality, Lamar used his immensely large platform to move the masses and call attention to the severe consequences of constant oppression. It’s supremely rare that an artist of his caliber uses his celebrity to make a positive change, but what Lamar has managed to do through a single work of music is a refreshing and powerful action that resonates with people of all races. In addition to speaking out to the systematic oppression that has plagued Black people for centuries, Lamar also called out the senseless violence occurring among Black communities, urging unity among street gangs instead of the constant opposition he grew up witnessing for most of his life.

Just because you wore a different gang color than mine, doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man.

With his influence reaching levels unfathomable, it’s a wonder to observe how such a relatively young artist managed to be so in tune with the social and cultural climate of the times and subsequently destroy expectations set by industry standards. While most of his peers are unwilling to use their platform to speak on such issues for fear of losing their path of dominance within the industry, Lamar has managed to keep his momentum while being able to stick to his artistic value. Perhaps the most impressive ability that Lamar possesses is not his musical talent, it’s his ability to maintain the respect of a majority of people while continuing to be artistically free. His experimental approach to the promotion of this album was highly revered, as evidenced by his sold-out, ten-city “Kunta Groove Sessions” tour, his masterful performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and most recently, his joyous victory lap with the surprise release of his latest album untitled unmastered.  His momentum carried throughout, as “Alright” became the national anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, and he became a symbol of inspiration to not only his peers, but to the young Black generation all over the world.

Perhaps the single most defining moment of the year was not his artistic display with his short film U, his powerful performance of what is now known as “untitled 3” on The Colbert Report, or even his show-stealing performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” at this year’s Grammy Awards. It was the “Compton: Witness Greatness” promotional commercial that was aired prior to this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony that fully displayed the impact that he has had on the culture over the past year. Featuring Compton residents reciting the lyrics to his single “Alright,” the spot was revered as one of the more celebratory times for the people of the city, as the prolific lyrics boomed throughout the duration of the commercial. The looks of hope that adorned the faces of those featured throughout the commercial – faces that at one time only had room for sadness – are examples of what sets Lamar apart from his peers.

When my pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go?”
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright

Whether or not you find yourself listening to To Pimp a Butterfly continuously as you would with other music that’s easier to digest, there’s an undeniable truth unearthed by Lamar’s presence over the last year. His ability to heal an entire demographic of people through music, while opening the eyes of those who might have been ignorant to just what a man in his shoes has gone through, has revolutionized those who follow him. He has redefined his career and presence as an artist, and will continue to grow into an artist that many will cherish for years to come.

Photo Credit: Saint Heron

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Danielle Howe

Danielle Howe is a New York City-based writer that is here for all things funny, uplifting, silly, and occasionally inappropriate. The quirky (and somewhat awkwardly extroverted) twenty-something graduate of Northeastern University is far from what you would expect — dabbling in all areas of urban, pop, and underground culture while finding a way to combine it all. Her interests include full time fangirling for Beyonce, Bruno Mars, and all of her awesome indie musician friends, making a mess of her social life, and finding awesome new places to brunch on weekends.